The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

The Terror of History: Lectures 9-13 (Heresy and the Millennium)

The first part of Prof. Teo Ruiz’s Great Courses lecture series, The Terror of History, was on mysticism. The second part is on Heretical and Millenarian Movements.

I find it so very interesting (although not surprising) that there is such a fine line between what is considered mystical and what is considered heretical. A mystic could very easily cross the line into heresy if they get too far away from what is considered orthodox, and what is orthodox varies. (What is now orthodox may have been heretical, yesterday.)


Heresy is the denial of established dogmas or dissent from established truth. You can only be a heretic of the religion of which you are a part. Therefore, if you are Jewish, you wouldn’t be considered heretical by the Catholic Church even though your beliefs go completely counter to church dogma because you are not Catholic. You would have to be Catholic to be considered heretical by the Church. (Or more generally, Christian to be considered a Christian heretic.)

Heresy is defined by the victor. Many of the Catholic Church dogmas came out of what was once considered heretical. (An example is transubstantiation.)

Many of the heresies that swept Europe during the middle ages were a result of the Investiture Conflict (a conflict between the church and state) that occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries and later Church Reform. There was a lot of religious dissent during this period and five main heretical groups emerged:

  • The Reformers – those swept away by the spirit of reforming the church, like Martin Luther.
  • Eccentrics – usually isolated and held outdated and sometimes bizarre beliefs.
  • Dualism or Manichaeism like the Cathars.
  • Reactionaries – those who objected to Church reform and favored of an allegiance to tradition.
  • Heterodox views that came out of intellectual thought like that of Baruch Spinoza who was expelled from his synagogue.
  • Millenarian Movements

Millenarian movements are based on the idea that time has a beginning and end. This view of time comes out of the Persian/Iranian concepts of time and the constant struggle between good and evil. Cultural and social constructs created this notion and it has had a lasting impact on the making of Western culture.

There are two orthodox millennial traditions within Christianity. One can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Book of Revelation. Revelation holds the classic example: the devil is seized and imprisoned which leads to a faithful reign for 1000 years before the final battle between good and evil when time will come to an end. (There were several other concepts floating around as well.)

The heresy and millenarian beliefs deeply affected the social, political and cultural structures of Western Europe. Millenarian and Apocalyptic beliefs were triggered by the violence after the first popular crusade, and a good argument can be made that the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Europe in the 20th century are directly related to millenarian ideas. (Norman Cohn)


Catharism arose in southern France which was very different, culturally, than northern France. Ideas of courtly love, which originated in southern France, were widespread in the area. Therefore, female spirituality was given more importance and the observance of Catholicism was very lax.

Catharism held a Manichaean duality and while it is considered a heresy (and therefore Christian), it was technically a completely different religion that was in competition with Christianity.

Most of the Cathars were the mercantile classes and lower nobility. The role of women was much more significant in Catharism than in Catholicism, too, which was no doubt thanks to the idea of courtly love so prevalent in the area.

The Catholic Church attempted to bring the Cathars back into the fold but their attempts didn’t work so they launched a crusade against them. This was the first time the Church had launched a crusade against Christians. The church eventually defeated the heretics, but Catharism remained alive.

(As a side note, it often happens that radical movements that begin as orthodox end up heretical.)

The Birth of the Inquisition

As was mentioned earlier, the Church failed to completely wipe out the Cathars and the violence that had erupted from attempts to wipe them out set the stage for a climate of persecution. The French desire to pacify the region led to the creation of the Inquisition around 1220. It was organized in southern France by the papal order and placed in charge of the Dominicans. The Pope had the highest authority, the bishops next highest and then local inquisitors.

The inquisition persecuted anyone they considered to be a heretic, and it was largely supported by the masses. People were brought to trial and punishment included torture, burning, confiscation and penance.

The construction of “otherness” came into being during this time period. Differences were exaggerated and persecuted. Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups were excluded from communal and national projects. This was the beginning of the rise of persecuting societies. The Inquisition also provided a way to confiscate the property of those believed to be the enemy. Whole societies developed around the wealth of confiscated properties.

Before the 12th century, the church would make attempts to bring heretics back into the fold. By the late 12th century, extreme punishment was employed to bring them back, and this punishment was acceptable to the public! It provided a way of binding together community. However, the persecution in the 12th century is calm in comparison to what came in the 15th century with the persecution of witches. And the persecution of witches is much more calm than the persecution that arose in the 20th century. (Western culture gets more and more violent as time goes on…)

Free Spirits

Another heretical movement that arose was that of the Free Spirits (the beghards and beguines). Adherents were accused of letchery and sexual excesses. They were also accused of claiming to reach a state of perfection where they were equal to God and no longer bound by moral laws. These stories, however, were not true. They were spread by the enemies of the movement as a way to dispel it. (Church Propaganda.)

Groups like the Free Spirit emerged because the Church had put a moratorium on new religious orders. This caused lay orders to become popular which paved the way for new forms of spirituality. The Free Spirit (or beguines and beghards – a female lay order) were the most important in defining the new forms of lay spirituality.

Marguerite Porete, one of the leading thinkers of the Free Spirit, was executed in Paris. Others were persecuted as well. These women did not see themselves as heretics. They believed themselves to be orthodox believers who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Millennium in the 16th Century

At the end of the middle ages and beginning of the modern era, unstable conditions came into being that challenged the established order. In Germany (and throughout Western Europe), the village structure that had been in place for centuries in rural areas changed dramatically. This affected the social structure of rural societies. A few wealthy citizens began buying up the village common lands which caused large numbers of peasants to become landless proletariats. Their traditional ways of life were eroded beyond recognition.

Another change, of course, is the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther. He denied transubstantiation, ecclesiastical celibacy, and the supremacy of the pope. He also wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, which he did himself. One of the reasons Luther was successful was because of the political infighting going on in Germany at the time. The German princes were threatened by the growing power of Charles V and looked to Luther as a way to legitimize their resistance to imperial power.

The German peasants began making social, economic and religious demands, asking for a more egalitarian society. There were outbreaks of widespread violence which often led to attacks on the monasteries and to the peasants appropriations of church land. Muntzer, a follower of Luther who became even more radical, led to the rise of the Anabaptists and the Great Peasant War. The rebels defeated nobel armies but the war ended with a nobel victory, and untold numbers of peasants were slaughtered, partially thanks to Luther’s condemnation of them.

Millenarian agitation continued in Germany and throughout the West. In the mid 17th century, Puritans overthrew King Charles I and established a commonwealth. (“No king but King Jesus”.) The Puritans had millenarian views, but not radical ones. However, they paved the way for more radical views, both utopian and millenarian.

The first wave of Americans was composed of Puritans and other religious radicals. The New Englanders thought of their land as the blessed recreation of Jerusalem, which ushered in American exceptionalism. The country continued to be a magnet for religious radicals and utopian thinkers who saw North America as the ideal place to create a perfect society.

Jewish Millennial Expectations

The Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain (Sefarad) for more than 1400 years. In 1391, persecution of the Jews, as well as a series of pogroms, led the Jews to convert in large numbers. Some did so voluntarily, others were forced to convert. Those who did so voluntarily sought the economic and political gains that were available to Christians in the area.

The once thriving Jewish community of Iberia became two antagonistic bodies: the Conversos (those who had converted to Christianity) and Jews that remained faithful to their ancestral beliefs, despite the persecution and their diminished role in Spanish society.

Those who refused to convert were marginalized. They moved to small towns where they could find protection. Some of the Conversos still practiced Judaism in secret while others became faithful Christians. Some were religiously confused and followed neither religion.

Those who remained Jewish became more faithful to Jewish law and traditional practices, giving up the once wide held fascination with Aristotelian thought. (It was the Aristotelian thought that may have made it easy for many to convert to Christianity.)

The growing Jewish interest in Judaism spurred a greater interest in apocalyptic expectations. These were messianic beliefs linked with Kabbalah mysticism and became an important part of 15th century Spanish Judaism.

The Spanish Inquisition appeared in the 1480s with a savage attack against the Conversos. Some Jews supported this attack on the Conversos, which supported the “rightness” of their decision to remain Jewish. (The Jews did not fall under the Inquisitions jurisdiction, but the Conversos, did.) The Inquisition brought with it much distrust among the Conversos and Jews, as well as great instability.

By the 1490s, life for the Jews had deteriorated so significantly that normal life on the peninsula was now impossible. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella proclaimed the Edict of Expulsion which gave Jews 3 months to convert or get out. Half of the Jews converted, the other half went into difficult exile. This was very difficult for the Jews because they thought of Spain as their country and now they were no longer allowed to identify with it.

Many of the wealthier and politically influential Jews were convinced by their Catholic peers to convert. One who refused was Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508). He was one of the main financial advisers to the Catholic monarchs. He was also well-versed in the Torah and had written on planetary conjunctions and their effect on the age.

In choosing exile, he became one of the leading (and richest) intellectuals among the exiled Jews, and he created an elaborate doctrine on the coming of the Messiah. People were told to turn away from rational pursuits and return to a faithful observance of the Torah. He claimed the beginning of the 16th century, which was marked by the expulsion out of Sefarad, ushered in the Jews return to God. Repentance was viewed as a condition of redemption. He said the conflict between the Christians and the Turks (who were Muslim) was a sign of the coming final wars that would usher in the Messiah. This would lead to the restoration of religious life and to the political rehabilitation of Israel. This new Israel was a utopia.

Another messianic leader was Sabbatai Sevi who conducted an apocalyptic mission between 1665-1676. Nathan of Gaza (well-known theologian and Kabbalist) promoted Sabbatai as the long-awaited Messiah and with Sabbatai’s visit to Jerusalem in 1662, a period of intense religious activity began that culminated with his pronouncement that he was the Messiah in 1665. Many Jews sold their possessions and traveled to Palestine to await the end of days. The Jewish disturbances came to the attention of the Ottoman Empire and Sabbatai was imprisoned in 1666. Surprisingly, Sabbatai, converted to Islam. This did not put an end to his Messiahship, however. Many argued that it was a necessary step for the Messiah to become a Converso before redemption of the Jewish people could take place.

There remains an enduring quality of messianic belief among orthodox Jews to this day. It’s difficult to say exactly what the messiah will be – maybe a person, maybe some sort of divine intervention. All those who hold the to a messianic belief likewise believe that Israel plays a unique role in human history. Israel is redemptive.

The Terror of History: Lectures 4-8 (Mysticism)

Intro. to Mysticism

Is mysticism a superior form of grasping reality, or is it just another way to escape the terror of history? It’s not so clear because many of the mystics are very convincing that they have experienced reality.

We in the West have a very deeply ingrained sense of self (“I”). Mystics attempt to move away from the “I” and its demands and try to discover a deeper self. This is done through withdrawal and introspection, which brings about dramatic change that eventually transforms the individual into a new being.

The search involves either immanence or emanation. Emanation says God is on the outside so the mystics journey is upward and outward. Immanence means that God is within so the journey is inward. Most Western mystics practiced Emanation. (Immanence presented the problem of heresy.)

Common symbols of mystics are pilgrimage, love (often in the form of courtly love), and the attainment of perfection,

The mystic undergoes five stages:

  1. Awakening
  2. Self-knowledge/purgation – usually involves a return to the natural self but can also involve various acts of contrition.
  3. Illumination (hearing voices, seeing visions, automatic writing…)
  4. Surrender (dark night of the soul)
  5. Ecstasy (union with God). It is an involuntary act.

Mysticism in the 12th Century

Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen was born around 1098 into an aristocratic family with important political and social connections with the ruling elites in Bingen. She was literate and was well versed in both science and theology. (Most women were not educated in her day.) She made contributions to the medical field and presented what could be called a “feminist interpretation” of scientific evidence. She held an important place in the scientific culture of her day. She also composed music.

She was the first mystic to discuss Eve and Mary and the role of women in the church. She claimed Eve was the true mother of mankind, and that men and women held equal roles in conception. (Remember, this was back in the day when women were considered to be nothing more than incubators of what the man had to offer her.) She had a vision of a mystical pillar which joined Mother Mary to God.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux.

Saint Bernard of Clairveaux is one of the most important historical figures of the 12th century. He was born around 1090 and entered Citeaux, the mother house of the Cistercian Order after a spiritual conversion. Citeaux and the Cistercian Order were founded to escape the growing wealth and materialism of the Church. They mimicked the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers.

Bernard argued that freedom was a gift from God and that it requires man to love God completely. (But because our freedom is a gift, we are not free.) There are four stages of love…

  • self-love
  • the love of God
  • the sweetness of the love of God
  • surrender to God

Mysticism in the 13th Century

This was the time of the growth of urban societies and the rise of the bourgeoisie, which created tremendous change. Mass and the liturgy were formalized. Latin, although it was no longer used by the people, became the formal language of mass, and the priest would face the altar, away from the people, deliberately creating a sort of wall between the people and the Church.

Saint Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis was born around 1182. His father was a rich merchant. After being wounded in a war, Francis made a transformation. He was commanded by God to “rebuild his Church” and he took this to mean he was to rebuild the Church of Saint Damian, which he did.

After a public confrontation with his father, Francis removed all of his clothes and gave them to his father, claiming he no longer wanted the association to money his father represented. He traveled through Central Italy, gathering disciples, and gained approval for his Order. (Pope Innocent III had a vision that it was Francis who saved the Church from falling.)

Important messages:

  • Sanctity of poverty and the renunciation of wealth.
  • An awareness of nature and the presence of God in the world.
  • An emphasis on the manger which represents the humanity and vulnerability of Christ.
  • A new type of teaching to “infidels” who need love. (Rather than raging war against them.)

He was betrayed by his order (they agreed to the owning of property and teaching in universities) and so he withdrew to Mt. Verna where he received the stigmata. Shortly afterward, he wrote "The Canticle of the Sun" while waiting to die.

Dante Alighieri.

Dante was born around 1265 to a patrician family in Florence. When he was 9, he had his first encounter with Beatrice which had a profound and lasting impact on his later life. Because of political factors, Dante was exiled from Florence which was extremely difficult for him. His exile led to the writing of La Vita Nuova and later, The Divine Comedy which provides a guide to the culture and politics of medieval Europe and the Italian city-states of the early 14th century. The Comedy is the pilgrimage of a mystic from sin and despair to a vision of God. The end of The Comedy shows a mystical union with God that is deeply influenced by an Aristotelian worldview.

Jewish Mysticism

This lecture focuses on The Zohar, considered to be one of the most important Kabbalistic texts ever written. No one is sure how to date it. Gershom Scholem claims it was written in late 13th century Castile. More religious scholars claim it was an earlier text. (You run into the same problems with the authors of the New Testament. The religious folks tend to date texts earlier than history scholars.)

Scholem says that Jewish mysticism was far less “feminine” than its Christian counterparts. (For instance, the marriage between soul and God do not take place in Judaism as they do in Christianity, no bridal bed, etc.)

The Zohar says the commandments given to Moses are a mixture of confirmation and denial. (Do this, don’t do that.) It also claims the scriptures can be interpreted in 4 ways:

  • peshat (simple interpretation)
  • remez (allusion)
  • derash (homilitic)
  • sod (mysteries behind the words of sacred texts)

The ten sefiroths are a step by step plan for revealing the divine and are arranged hierarchically from God to man.

  • kether – consciousness of God
  • hokhmah – wisdom of God
  • binah – intelligence
  • hesed – God’s love
  • din – judgement
  • tifereth – God’s beauty
  • sefirah – divine victory
  • hod – glory
  • yesod – justice
  • malkuth – the feminine principle

This is a movement from the unknowable to the knowable (the transcendental to the understandable). Man is the focal point by which emanations of God return to God. One returns to God through repentance (teshubah).

Also important is the doctrine of the seven heavens, seven earths, seven earthly paradises, and seven hells.

The Kabbalah had a significant impact on the West, especially upon the Italian Renaissance (and on Dante). The Kabbalah was an esoteric practice meant only for a few initiates, but it spread throughout the Christian world among scholars in the 14th century. Many of the most important scholars in early modern Europe were deeply influenced by the Kabbalah. The power of letters and numbers also took on significance throughout the West which caused the Kabbalah to become linked to a magical tradition.

Mysticism in Early Modern Europe

In the 16th and 17th centuries, developments in learning (especially in the sciences), the emergence of economies of scale, rapid political centralization, and religious conflict undermined the power of the ancient religious traditions. There was a growing interest in detachment from the world and an increase in mystical activity, despite the growing materialism. Many scholars, even though they were scientists, maintained a deep commitment to transcendence and the divine. People everywhere were searching for a spirituality that could counter the growing materialism.

Mysticism during this period was expressed differently by Catholics and Protestants. Protestants tended to be wary of Catholic mysticism and expressed transcendence as a direct experience of God, usually through scripture.

St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit society, wrote The Spiritual Exercises which had a strong martial quality.

St. Teresa of Avila.

St. Teresa of Avila, born in 1515 to a family of aristocrats, joined the Carmelite Order which had become a very opulent in her day. She attempted to reform it by making it more ascetic. (The entire Roman Catholic Church was undergoing reform at this time thanks to the Protestant Reformation.) She was hugely influential on the literary world. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, was heavily patterned on Teresa’s story.

St. John of the Cross.

John of the Cross was born in 1542 and wrote Dark Night of the Soul which explains his mystical experiences and acts as a guide to help others lose their sense of self. He says God can be known in 5 ways:

  • through self-knowledge
  • by seeing the world
  • through faith
  • through the via negativa – going beyond the knowable
  • by union with God

Quick Summary

Mysticism in the West provided authority to those who would not otherwise have it, especially women. Also, mysticism was always on the brink of what was considered heretical. There was the continual threat that a mystic would be turned over to the Inquisition or other authority. What was seen as mystical during one period would have been viewed as heretical by a different period because the difference between heretics and mystics was political.

Everything Is Illuminated (2005)

Everything is Illuminated is a film directed by Liev Schrieber based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is about Jonathan’s search for the gentile woman who saved his Jewish grandfather.  He travels from the U.S. to the Ukraine, looking for a town called Trachimbrod which was wiped off the maps by the Nazis.  Trachimbrod is a fictional name, but it refers to a real place known as Trokhymbrid (Trochenbrod is the Russian name), which was a Jewish village located in western Ukraine.  The Nazis killed almost everyone and liquidated the entire village.

Not everyone was thrilled by Foer’s portrayal of Jews in the Ukraine.  Some claim it is an offensive and pointless fabrication, which may be true.  But the film doesn’t include scenes from the past as does the novel.  It stays primarily focused on the present.  The beginning of the film is hilarious, but the end is both dark and moving.

Alex is actually the main character and he makes the movie.  He’s from the Ukraine and serves as Jonathan’s translator.  But Alex’s English is a bit off.  Instead of everything being understood, everything is illuminated.  He describes Jonathan’s search as “rigid” rather than thorough.  And he is never able to get Jonathan’s name quite right.

The music in the film is a lot of fun, too.  The character who plays Alex, Eugene Hutz, is the lead singer for Gogol Bodello, a Gypsy Punk band.  This is the band that shows up in the train scene.  They also perform the song when the credits are rolling at the end of the film, “Start Wearing Purple”.

I give it 4 1/2 stars.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 4-13 – Jewish Mysticism

More notes from Timothy Luke Johnson’s The Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Judaism is not the same as what we read about in the Ancient Hebrew texts. Judaism formed between 350 BCE and 200 CE.  This was in direct response to Rome bringing Palestine into the Roman Empire.  Most Jews, however, lived in the Diaspora, not Palestine, and they were far better off than those in Palestine because they could learn Homer then go to Synagogue and learn Torah. They weren’t as confined as Palestinian Jews who would have been chastised by “Pious Jews” for learning Homer and chastised for learning Torah by the Roman authorities.

Second of all, in Jewish mysticism, the mystic is one who can read the Torah and unfold and reveal to others the deeper meanings of the texts that are not obvious to the literal mind.

Merkabah Mystics of Ancient Palestine

The Essenes were possibly the oldest Jewish mystics.  They created a community far from the rest of the world and contemporized Ezekiel.

Philo of Alexandria represents the earliest mysticism in the Diaspora (15 BCE-50 CE).  He read the Septuagint (Greek translation of OT) allegorically (in the style of Greek philosophers), so had a Platonic understanding of the world -phenomenal (Earth) vs. noumanal (Heaven).  He read the ascent of Moses as a transition from the phenomenal to the noumanal.  What we see in Philo becomes the future of Jewish mysticism – seeking in the texts deeper meanings which can reveal the realities of God.

A problem arose, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ACE.  What was written by Moses was written for agricultural realities, not urban realities.  Plus, the temple has been destroyed so there is no way to carry out the sacrifices.  How do you take the words of Moses and apply them to these new realities the Jews found themselves in?

Scribes began making interpretations through Midrash (which means “to search out or seek”).  Halakic Midrash was expertise applied to law.  (Halak means “walk”.)  Haggadic Midrash was applied to stories and songs. (Haggad means “recite”.)   This process of interpretation is what is known as “The Oral Torah”.  Seeking to understand the Torah becomes the equivalent of carrying out the sacrifice/observance.

Obeying God’s law was a community responsibility.  There was a strong conviction that the Shekinah (divine presence) was among humans, particularly among those studying the Torah.  It was said that when 2 or 3 are gathered together to study Torah, the Shekinah is among them.  (Sound familiar?)  And mystics were considered to be the most learned and observant – the only people worthy to speculate on certain aspects of the Bible, like the throne chariot and heavens (Merkabah).

Merkabah mysticism is outwardly about an ascent, but it is really about a descent into interiority.  The deeper you go, the more dangerous it gets.  There are seven heavens.  The mystics ask (Torah study), why not just one?  Because it is an arduous task to reach the transcendent.  The transcendent is protected.  You can’t reach it just by desiring it.

Merkabah mysticism is a mysticism of the mind, not the heart.

Hasidism of Medieval Germany

The Hasidism of Medieval Germany (Hasidic Ashkenazi) is a mysticism of the heart over the mind.  It maintained elements of Merkabah Mysticism, but interestingly was primarily based on the mistranslation of a rationalist philosophical text – The Book of Philosophic Doctrines and Religious Beliefs by Saadia Gaon (892-942).  The book was written in Aramaic but mistranslated into Hebrew where it appeared as a mystical text rather than the rationalist text it was originally meant to be.  It was read by Eleazer ben Juhudah (one of the founders of Hasidism) as a mystical text and had great influence on his ideas.

Hasidism picks up a lot of elements from Christianity.  For instance, for the first time in Judaism through Hasidism, there is a huge emphasis on penitence and repentance.  (Jews had always emphasized “turning away from sin”, but never feeling bad for it until now.)  With Hasidic Askanazi, mysticism becomes a practice for ordinary Jews.  All you had to do was be a pious member of the sect. You didn’t have to be a scholar.  It introduces a popular, practical mysticism, which includes the ability to do extraordinary things.  God is not understood as transcendent, but rather, imminent.  And there is more emphasis on “love” than on “knowledge”.  (There is a very healthy attitude toward sexuality in Hasidism.)

This Hasidism presents the first intonation of monotheism becoming pantheism.  (Monotheism as pantheism preoccupies every form of mysticism in the three traditions.)  “Everything is in Thee and Thou art in everything; Thou fillest everything and dost encompass it; when everything was created, Thou was in everything; before everything was created; Thou wast everything.”.  Song of Unity

Early Kabbalists of Gerona

Kabbalah was first introduced by Moses Maimonides in the 12th & 13th century.  The Zohar is considered to be the authoritative text. Tradition holds that it is much older because it is written in an ancient style, but it is a 13th century text.  Some claim that Kabbalism is closely linked to Christianity, but it arose directly from within Jewish tradition.  The Zohar had been preceded by a century of fantastic mystical developments – Merkabah, which has already been discussed, and The Book of Creation which discussed the idea of emanations from God (Sefirot) that are like rays of light – God extending God’s self into the world.

The Book of Brilliance is actually the first Kabbalah text and was written by an anonymous author in the 12th century.  Obviously, this also preceded The Zohar.  It introduces a female component of the divinity for the first time – the Shekinah – which creates a sort of dualism.  Evil is connected to the material world, which creates a further dualism.  And, there are 10 Sefirot.  The Sefirot are understood in contrast to the Eyn Sof – God in God’s self.  God cannot be known in God’s self, but God can be known in God’s emanations (the Sefirot.)

Adepts of the Zohar

Kabbalah comes to maturity with The Zohar, (The Book of Splendor).  This is the canonical text of Jewish mysticism.  It introduces innovation as though it were ancient – as though it were written by the first generation of rabbinic teachers (specifically Simeon ben Yohai 2nd Century CE).  Some Kabbalists believe it came from this time period, but it was not introduced with Judaism.  It came much later.  The author of The Zohar was a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon (1250-1305).  He studied Maimonides and was interested in classical sources and The Book of Brilliance.  In Aramaic, the text is over 2400 pages long and very little of it has been translated into English.  Moderns who claim to be Kabbalists actually know very little about it.  You have to be able to read Aramaic in order for the text to be valuable, spiritually.

The Zohar combines all mystical elements of Judaism up until this time.  Kabbalists understand a mystic to be someone who finds mysticism wherever they happen to look.  It isn’t the subject matter that makes something mystical, it is the mystic’s eyes that make it mystical.  Much of The Zohar is ordinary and down to earth, but is extremely powerful mystically.

The Zohar is scholarly, not popular.  It appears to be exoteric but requires initiation and intense study.  It works from the exoteric to the esoteric.  It is a theosophy.  God is both completely other and can only be approached through negation.  But God in the world is knowable and approachable through the Sefirot.  God is in the Torah.  God is in the world.  God is in humans through the divine emanations.

At the head of the Sefirot, there is a triad. Keter (“the crown”), Binah (“womb, palace, understanding”), and Hokhmah (“wisdom”). The Sefirot are not static, but dynamic.  Each Sefirot uses a Biblical term so that when you read the Bible, you are constantly encountering God’s revelation.

Marriage is highly valued in this mysticism.

Lurianic Spirituality

Then comes Issac Luria and Safed Spirituality – which is the 17th century version of Kabbalah and becomes more of a practical, popular mysticism (like Hasidism) than a prophetic mysticism.  This, to me, is where it gets really interesting because it directly addresses my my concern with those who want to popularize mysticism, today.

The Jews were exiled by Catholicism in the 17th century which caused Kabbalism to spread.  Those who ended up in Egypt and Palestine found Muslim rule to be much more tolerant and welcoming of Jews than were Christians and so the Jews flourished.  Safed in upper Galilee became the new center for Jewish mysticism and had a prestigious group of scholars.  Gilgul, transmigration of souls, was already an idea well established in Judaism, but it began to take on a new understanding.  People started to think in terms of a soul leaving one body and entering another.  (This mimics history – people lose one self during exile and gain another self in restoration.)  Messianism begins to arise again as a hope for the restoration of the people and it is this Messianism that creates a new Kabbalah.

Isaac Luria is the most influential of the Safed teachers.  He fits the stereotypic mystic: visionary, distracted, wandering around, seeing souls everywhere and thinks he is in contact with Elijah.  He had a very strong sense of the transmigration of souls.  Out of Lurianic Spirituality comes these themes:

  • transmigration of the souls
  • emphasis on visionary
  • emphasis on the individual mystic as a public figure who manifests the presence of God miraculously through mysticism

These themes made their way like wildfire throughout Northern Europe.  It is a practical mysticism which often involves the manipulation of reality through the manipulation of symbols.  Lurianic spirituality becomes far more mythic than what is found in The Zohar.

Sabbatianism – Messianic Mysticism

As was mentioned earlier, Lurianic spirituality is a popularization of mysticism with the focus being on the mystic.  It is not prophetic, scholarly mysticism.  This popularization of mysticism allowed for a dangerous move to Messianism.

There have been lots of Messianic figures over the years, but Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) presented something totally different.  He created a crisis in the heart of Judaism. The Ghetto had been established in 1516 in Italy which required that Jews all live in a single quarter, wear identifying clothing and were allowed on the streets at certain hours.  Judaism became more of a prison than the marginalism it had been previously.  Meanwhile, the Christian expectaion of the end of the world was at an all time high.  In England, it was thought that 1656 would be the year the Messiah wold return.  Many Kabbalists were identifying 1648 as the year the Jewish Messiah would return.

In 1648, Sabbatai Zevi proclaims himself the Messiah and he basically plays out the script of Jesus’ life.  He claims he is the Messiah by pronouncing the divine name – the tetragrammaton.  So, like Jesus, he breaks Jewish law in order to establish himself as Messiah (Jesus openly broke Sabbath laws, hung out with “low lifes”, kept company with “loose women”, etc.).  This is called the antinomian Messiah – it is a reaction to socially established morality.

Sabbatai Zevi meets Nathan of Gaza (1644-1690) who is said to be Sabbatai Zevi’s John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle combined.  With Nathan of Gaza, Sabbatai Zevi gains immense fame.  In 1666, Sabbatai Zevi claims he embodies Elijah and would conquer the world without bloodshed and that he would lead the 10 lost tribes back to Israel.  And he claims he will do so riding on a lion with a seven headed dragon in his jaws. He gets kicked out of Jerusalem for these claims, but a large part of the Jewish population believes he is the Messiah.  People were willing to leave their homes and totally change their lives to follow him.

Sabbatai Zevi begins to issue decrees about the non-observance of rules.  Fasting days are turned into days of celebration.  Again, he is likely following the script provided by Jesus.  Jesus declared that people cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them.  They can only fast when the bridegroom is absent.  When the bridegroom is present, they should feast.  (Mark 2:19-20)

What Sabbatai Zevi establishes is the idea that the mystic/Messianic figure can overturn Torah.  He was arrested by a Muslim ruler in Instanbul and stories abound about the miracles he performs there.  Prayers for Sabbatai Zevi are offered in almost every synagogue.  A more serious arrest is made and he has to go before Sultan Mehmed IV.  So like Jesus facing Pontius Pilate, Sabbatai Zevi is facing an imperial power.  This is his chance to die as a martyr.  But what does he do?  He takes off his Jewish clothing, puts on a turban, and declares himself Muslim.  As a reward, he is made a minor official and takes on more wives.  He declares that God has made him an Ishmaelite.

Despite this, Sabbatianism continues amongst the Jews. People begin to reinterpret Apostasy in terms of Lurianic Kabbalism – as a form of self-exile.  By entering into the realm of evil and the abyss, his restoration will occur in the future.  Sabbatians expect the return of Sabbatai Zevi in the future. This movement was rejected by the majority of Jews, but it had 100s of 1000s of believers who practiced the ritual of the breaking of the commandments.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism

A new Hasidism arose in Eastern Europe in the 18th century.  This was, in part, a response to the enlightenment which threatened Jewish observance.  Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Jewish thinker, was one of the first influential critics of the Bible.  He regarded the Bible as “not true” but said it was still meaningful.

Spinoza’s panentheism mirrored Kabbalism – he offered a secularized version of Kabbalah.  He made a distinction between thought and extension which virtually mirrored the Eyn Sof and Sefirot.

The New Hasidism began in the Ukraine where Jews were scattered in rural villages. There were no centers of great learning here, so Hasidism arises out of popular mysticism. The founder was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760).  He was a healer and had been known as a pious, poor man.  Even the elite would come to hear him teach.  He taught by means of stories and said that all things are filled with God and reveal God.  (Panentheism)

This movement spread quickly.  Soon Talmudic scholars had joined the movement which gave it even greater credibility.

Eliezer is known as a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik is at the center of a community’s life because of his personality and life of prayer.  He is not at the center of the community because of his knowledge of Torah.  Because personality is central, the role of Tzaddik is handed down from father to son.  Sometimes Tzaddik are messianic figures, but not always.  Because of how Tzaddik is handed down, different lines of Hasidism have developed.  The largest group of Hasidic followers is Chabad Lubavitch.

Today, Hasidic Jews look like the most orthodox of all Jewish observers.

Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism

There has not been much development in mysticism in modern times because of the challenges to Judaism in the 19th and 20th century.

  • The Jewish political emancipation was a mixed blessing.  Their assimilation into the wider culture has caused many Jews to leave their religion (intermarriage, etc.)
  • There was a continued and increased anti-semitism.  One of the great problems of modernity is that everyone is accepted as long as they are the same.  If you insist on being different, you are despised.
  • Haskalah – The Enlightenment threatened the sacred text of the Torah even more than did Christianity.
  • Jews responded to continuing persecution by embracing Zionism.
  • The Shoah (Holocaust) took place in 1932-1945

Jews had various ways of responding the the demystification that took place during the Enlightenment.  Reform Jews abandoned the Talmudic tradition altogether.  Prophets, rather than Law, became the focus and the emphasis was placed on a call to social justice.  Orthodox Jews insisted upon maintaining the tradition, but did so in a reactionary way.  Conservative Jews sought a middle ground between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews.  They continue to observe the Talmud as the basis of their practice, but they are also free to accept elements of the current culture.

Zionism was the hope for a Jewish homeland.  This began with Moses Hess (1812-1875) and became an organization under Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) with the World Zionist Organization.

Emil Fackenheim said that the Bible should be read as a history of the people rather than as mysticism, and Elie Wiesel said that the Shoah (holocaust) demanded silent witness and a very cautious recovery of meaning.

One form of mysticism is represented by the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism which is still going strong.  It emphasizes ecstatic experience and the role of the mind.  Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneerson (1902-1994) served as the head of the community for 44 years.  He was a messianic figure.

Another form of mysticism comes from Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (1865-1935).  He was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1921-1935 and provided a restatement of Lurianic Kabbalism.

Kabbalism has taken on a totally new (and in comparison to Zohar adepts, quite shallow) understanding through the pop-spirituality realm (see

There remain thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel that are both deeply marked by the mystical tradition.

Johnson says it is unclear whether Jewish mysticism will be able to gather itself back together.  But what is clear is that “if mysticism is to be authentically, genuinely Jewish, it must involve deep study and devotion to the Torah and the God therein.”

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 2-3 – Symbols Used in Western Mysticism

Continuing with The Great Courses lecture series entitled Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam offered by Timothy Luke Johnson, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University…

The three “Western” religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (called western because they moved westward, not because they originated in the west) are monotheistic which means they share an understanding of God in relation to the world.  God is other/different than what is seen in the empirical world.  In order to approach God, one must likewise be “other”/different (holy).  This one God has created the world which is real, but relative. It is dependent upon the creator. God and world are constantly created in a process of becoming.

All three religions are prophetic religions and they are “religions of the book”. The primary prophets are Moses, Jesus and Muhammed.  Prophets do not predict the future, but they are able to see what others do not see through the use of the “third eye”.  Each tradition has scripture and a means of interpreting scripture.  In Judaism, the means of interpretation is the Oral Torah. In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit. In Islam, it is the Hadith. The first response to God is not love, it is obedience – doing the will of God. Piety toward God is understood as morality toward the neighbor.  Prosperity that neglects the need of the poor is condemned in all three traditions.

Today, scripture is read more for information than for transformation.  Prior to the 1800s, it was read for transformation.  The Bible was used as a set of examples for its readers to follow.

The TaNak (Old Testament) is a direct source for Christians and Jews, and an indirect source for Muslims.  Moses is the first and greatest of prophets and provides the first great experience of God. (A prophet is a mystic – somebody who has a direct vision of God).  There were those before Moses who had encounters with God, but it is through Moses that the Bible first shows a life permeated by the direct experience of God.

Moses goes up the mountain and draws close to the thick darkness where God is. The ascent up the mountain is an ascent into darkness. This ascent is an exoteric symbol for an esoteric experience.  It is described as an outward ascent but is actually a descent into interiority (inner experience).  The approach to God is often described by ascent or pilgrimage. These are spatial metaphors for what is happening internally.

The most common symbols of human access to God:

  • crossing the sea and desert
  • ascending the mountain
  • experiencing a dark cloud and fire
  • a sea of glass or sapphire
  • the land of rest

Isaiah had a vision of a throne inside a palace. The place is known has hekel and recurs frequently. Ezekiel’s vision remained at the heart of Jewish mysticism for centuries.  The heavens open, there is a storm in the North, flashing flames, and the appearance of four living creatures with four faces, four wings, moving in fire-filled clouds.  Ezekiel also describes the merkabah, the heavenly movable throne chariot.  Daniel provides the first apocalyptic writing.  Like Ezekiel, he describes a heavenly throne, flames, and wheels which shows literary dependence – the symbols of previous prophets are used by later prophets.

Daniel refers to the covenant of marriage between man and woman to describe God’s relationship with His people.  Jeremiah introduced the language of the heart into the prophetic.  Ezekiel uses the language of eroticism between God & human beings, which has proven to be quite dangerous when misread by literalists.  The punishment of the bride refers to God’s people, but literalists take it to mean the punishment of actual female brides. The Song of Solomon provides powerful erotic poetry without an explicit religious motif and it becomes one of the most important sources for erotic poetry for God.

Mystics within Judaism, Christianity and Islam work and rework these sets of symbols for centuries.

Waiting for Armageddon

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have lived around End Times theology and theories all my life.  Many a lunch break was spent discussing what would happen during the rapture in middle school and high school.  Everyone wanted to be rapture ready because being left behind was unthinkable.

I inherited the mentality from my friends, not my family.  And that was before all the Left Behind books became popular.  As each voyeuristic episode grew more destructive and violent, more people were hooked, and more people started writing their own versions.  (We lived across the street from a semi-popular “left behind” novelist.)  Apparently, millions of Americans love the idea of horrible harm coming to those who do not think as they do.  A compassionate Jesus? Who needs him if you are waiting for Armageddon?

Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi, explores the people who believe that Armageddon is around the corner and that Israel will be the site of Christ’s second coming.  It begins by stating that more than 50 million Americans believe that the Bible lays out the future of humankind in precise detail.   Among these, many believe that Christ will return to lead a final holy war in the land of Israel.  The show claims that 20 million Americans believe Jesus will return in their life time.  And remember the Pew statistics I quoted the other day?  41% of Americans believe Jesus will return before 2050.

According to many who believe in Biblical prophecy, the world will be destroyed in a chain of miraculous events:

  1. The Rapture – believers are snatched up by Jesus
  2. The Tribulation – seven years of war, violence, and destruction for those left behind
  3. Armageddon – the final epic battle between good and evil
  4. The Millennium – the return of the believers to a paradise on earth where there no longer is any evil

First comes  “The Rapture” which is based on Thessalonians 4:17: “We will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

The Rapture comes from the Greek word harpazo which means to snatch up or take up.  When Christ returns in the clouds, he will snatch up believers with him.  This will happen in an instant.  Suddenly, the 50 million or more believers will be gone – whisked out of their offices, homes or wherever it is they happen to be.  One minute they are here.  The next, poof!  Gone.  They will be snatched out of their cars, leaving them unmanned on the road which will cause accidents.  It will completely terrorize those who are left behind.

Second comes “The Tribulation”, based on Matthew 24:21: “Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.”   Those who chose not to believe in God before “the Rapture” will be left to suffer the seven year tribulation.  75% of the earth will be wiped out.  Ecological disasters, meteors hitting the earth, episodes like 9/11 happening every day, 1/3 of the waters will turn to blood.  Five to six years into “The Tribulation”, half of the world will be dead.  Violence and wars will radically increase. This is the time period when God finishes his judgment and discipline of Israel.

There is a belief that during this time, there will be enough Jews to create a nation.  Supposedly, 144,000 Jews will convert and evangelize. The Jews who do not convert, will perish. The temple will be rebuilt. (The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine. Leviticus 25:23.)  Thousands of Americans who believe in End Times make pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year to visit the Islamic mosque that used to be the temple.  This can be problematic because both evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Jews hope for the destruction of the mosque in order that the  temple can be built again.  Jews because they believe it is their right.  American evangelists because it points to Armageddon.  In fact, many Americans interviewed in the documentary dream of something absolutely horrible happening to destroy the mosque (like an earthquake or nuclear boms) so the temple can be rebuilt. Very few are interested in peaceful negotiations.  It’s no wonder things are so contentious.

American evangelical fundamentalists explain Islam as a world dominating religion. Believers are required to take over the world for Allah. Yet, throughout history, it could be argued that Islam has been far more tolerant of Jews than Christianity.  And get real – it’ not as though the fundamentalists love the Jews.  They fully expect them to convert or be destroyed by the wrath of God.  It would seem that the God of Christianity wants Christians to take over the world for God more than does Allah want the Muslims to take over the world for Islam.  It’s a projection – cast the finger out there at “those people”, when the finger should really be pointed at yourself.

But that’s the nature of fundamentalism.   You have to have something to point the finger at so that you don’t have to look too closely at yourself.  In the 1970s, the “evil ones” were Red China and the Communist Block of Russia.  But with the fall of Russia and the end of the cold war, the evangelicals have had to find new “evil ones” so have shifted their focus to Islam. There must be an evil “them” in order to have a righteous “us”.  Doesn’t matter who it is.

Apocalyptic literature was never meant as a script for those in power.  It was written for those persecuted by those in power.  In the hands of the powerful, it is no longer inspirational, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence and destruction. For example, John Hagee called for a strike on Iran because of what he understands as Biblical prophecy.  Yet, no where does the Bible claim that WWIII is part of God’s plan.

Armageddon is the third stage in the chain of events.  “Their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets.”  Zechariah 14:12.

I’d never heard this before, but mysticism is of genuine concern for many evangelicals because they claim it has led to an interpretation of the Bible that isn’t literal.  Yet, mysticism has been around a lot longer than has fundamentalism and has always been the common link between world religions.  According to Huston Smith, fundamentalism didn’t come into being until the 19th century.  Far from creating bridges, fundamentalism creates deep divides by claiming that it’s way is the only way to Truth.

Anyway, the story goes that the Jews will sign a peace treaty with their Arab neighbors that turns out to be false.  This treaty allows the antichrist to move into the temple and declare himself God.  This will be when the Jews realize he is not the promised Messiah and this will lead to Armageddon, the epic end-time battle.

The Millennium is the fourth stage in the chain of events.  “And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4.  Christ is going to trash the planet, but he’s going to clean it up for the millennium.  No EPA necessary.

All of this would simply be amusing if there weren’t so many powerful political personalities who believe it.  These people are organized and are making their way into every part of politics, both local and national.  It’s so bad that many evangelicals who don’t share these particular End Times theories are concerned by the power of those who do.